A be­lated spark in the Congress is un­likely to dent the BJP’s prospects

India Today - - POLITICS | GUJARAT - By Uday Mahurkar

The oc­ca­sion was the launch of the Gu­jarat Gaurav Ya­tra on Oc­to­ber 1, un­der the lead­er­ship of deputy chief min­is­ter Nitin Pa­tel, from the birth­place of Sar­dar Val­lab­hb­hai Pa­tel, Karam­sad, 70 km from Ahmed­abad. The ya­tra was said to be a re­tort to the chal­lenge Rahul Gandhi had thrown a few days be­fore dur­ing his Gu­jarat visit, ques­tion­ing the BJP’s de­vel­op­ment claims and mock­ing it say­ing, “Vikas gando thayo che (de­vel­op­ment has gone mad [un­der the BJP in Gu­jarat]).”

BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah, flag­ging off the ya­tra, de­liv­ers a pow­er­ful speech and re­it­er­ates that the BJP will win 150 seats in the com­ing polls sched­uled for De­cem­ber this year. Shah pulls up the state’s de­vel­op­ment fig­ures from dur­ing the Congress’s rule till 1995 and un­der the BJP in the past two decades. The BJP’s record ap­pears many times bet­ter, like in per capita in­come which has jumped from Rs 13,000-plus per an­num in 1995 to Rs 1.41 lakh-plus in 2016 (the jump is strik­ing even if we con­sider that the coun­try’s econ­omy also grew ex­po­nen­tially dur­ing the same pe­riod).

And yet a lin­ger­ing doubt re­mains about the BJP’s claim of win­ning a thump­ing ma­jor­ity or even a com­fort­able vic­tory. At the same meet­ing, a few Pa­tel youths present in the crowd chant anti-BJP slo­gans. The fol­low­ers of the pro-Pa­tel reser­va­tion leader, Hardik Pa­tel, are quickly whisked away.

Clearly, no one be­lieves the BJP will lose the elec­tions, but the tri­umphant winds blow­ing strong till a month ago have slowed down. A tem­po­rary bot­tle­neck called the GST, which has badly af­fected busi­nesses in in­dus­trial ar­eas like Surat, Ra­jkot and Jam­na­gar, is also dis­suad­ing state BJP work­ers from chant­ing their new slo­gan, “Aa vakhat 150 (This time 150 seats),” too loudly. (In 2012, the party had won 115 of the 182 as­sem­bly seats.) The BJP had coined it soon af­ter the 325-seat win in Ut­tar Pradesh and chanted it with de­light till Au­gust-end.

As the BJP pre­pares for bat­tle to re­tain Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s home bas­tion, the chill among the ranks is also due to Hardik’s con­tin­ued rants. A sec­tion of the Pa­tel youth seems to be with him; this from a com­mu­nity that has been a pil­lar of the BJP in Gu­jarat.

Hardik has re­port­edly struck a deal with the Congress party for a num­ber of seats to his sup­port­ers. The state gov­ern­ment, in its turn, had promised a body to ex­plore eco­nomic and so­cial ben­e­fits to the 51 per cent per cent up­per castes of the state (a ma­jor­ity of whom are Pa­tels). The gov­ern­ment also promised a com­mis­sion to fix re­spon­si­bil­ity for the al­leged po­lice atroc­i­ties on Pa­tel youth dur­ing their 2015 pro-reser­va­tion stir. Gu­jarat

chief min­is­ter Vi­jay Ru­pani says Hardik has lost his con­stituency. “He has made his po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions clear by reach­ing out to the Congress. So he’s lost his po­si­tion as cam­paigner for Pa­tel rights. He has no ground left,” says the CM.

Mean­while, in the op­po­si­tion Congress party, things seem to be look­ing up. Till re­cently a fac­tion-rid­den camp fight­ing to pre­serve its po­lit­i­cal iden­tity in the state, the Congress has started get­ting some trac­tion among the peo­ple as the re­sponse to Rahul Gandhi’s Gu­jarat visit last week showed. In fact, the exit of state unit chief Shankersinh Vaghela—who crossvoted in the Ra­jya Sabha elec­tion of Ahmed Pa­tel—has strangely united the party. Though Rahul didn’t put up a great show in pub­lic meet­ings dur­ing his Gu­jarat Navsar­jan Ya­tra, he got a bet­ter re­sponse than most pun­dits ex­pected.

As the two par­ties pre­pare for the fi­nal push, Gu­jarat presents a most in­ter­est­ing elec­toral sce­nario. For PM Modi, it

is a cru­cial bat­tle that will have a bear­ing on his bid for a sec­ond term in the 2019 par­lia­men­tary polls. He must not just win Gu­jarat, but win it by a good mar­gin. For the Congress, this is an op­por­tu­nity to up­set Modi and Shah’s ap­ple­cart.

And so both par­ties are pre­par­ing for a never-be­fore bat­tle in the west­ern state. Much, how­ever, will still de­pend on caste equa­tions. For ex­am­ple, Hardik’s hob­nob­bing with the Congress could shift castes such as the OBC Ksha­triyas—who have their own protests against the Pa­tels get­ting reser­va­tion ben­e­fits—to the BJP camp. Plus, how many of the Pa­tel votes Hardik can swing is also a ques­tion.

The Saf­fron Blan­ket

The saf­fron party be­lieves that by seek­ing a de­bate on de­vel­op­ment Rahul Gandhi has played into their hands. Says party spokesper­son Bharat Pandya, “If good gov­er­nance is the is­sue, there is not a sin­gle pa­ram­e­ter where the BJP doesn’t outdo the Congress. This de­bate is right up our street.” Against the Congress slo­gan of ‘Vikas gando thayo che’, the BJP has coined its own ‘Hun chun vikas, hun chu Gu­jarat (I am de­vel­op­ment, I am Gu­jarat)’. The party has also pre­pared a list of at least 100 gov­ern­ment pa­ram­e­ters which com­pare the progress dur­ing the BJP’s rule with that dur­ing the Congress’s time. On the booth man­age­ment side too, key strate­gist Amit Shah has tight­ened things up. Some 50,000 work­ers have been ap­pointed to look af­ter 50,000 booths. Plus, there are the 500 party vis­taraks at the booth level.

The party’s feed­back ex­er­cise re­gard­ing ticket se­lec­tion was com­pleted by Septem­ber 24. It was dur­ing this ex­er­cise that the party re­alised the neg­a­tive im­pact of GST on in­dus­try and the job sce­nario. The state gov­ern­ment im­me­di­ately got in touch with the Cen­tre and or­gan­ised meet­ings be­tween small busi­ness­men and the cen­tral and state tax of­fi­cials in most dis­tricts. CM Ru­pani says “even district col­lec­tors par­tic­i­pated in the meet­ings to un­der­stand the prob­lems of small busi­ness­men and al­lay their fears”. How­ever, as a party leader pointed out, “Much will de­pend on what the GST coun­cil does in the com­ing days.” The ner­vous­ness in the BJP ranks is clearly vis­i­ble.

The new cau­tion is best re­flected in the fact that it has drafted Union min­is­ters Nir­mala Sithara­man, Naren­dra Singh To­mar, Ji­ten­dra Singh and P.P. Chaud­hary into the cam­paign. They will work un­der Union fi­nance min­is­ter Arun Jait­ley. Bhu­pen­dra Ya­dav is the new gen­eral sec­re­tary in-charge of the state.

A Steady Hand

With in­fight­ing a thing of the past, the Congress party has gained some vigour. In fact, there is a spring in its step to­day, mostly due to the dis­com­fi­ture of the BJP over is­sues like GST, price rise and the job cri­sis. For­mer Ra­jasthan chief min­is­ter Ashok Gehlot, who was given charge of Gu­jarat early this year, is also bring­ing all his ex­pe­ri­ence to bear. What the Congress needs is a vi­able face to pit against CM Ru­pani. Af­ter Vaghela’s de­par­ture, it has two op­tions—state chief Bharatsinh Solanki, the son of for­mer chief min­is­ter Mad­havs­inh Solanki, and se­nior leader Shak­tis­inh Goel.

Mean­while, for the first time, the Congress is also con­cen­trat­ing on booth man­age­ment, tak­ing a cue from its BJP ri­vals. Dur­ing his Gu­jarat ya­tra, Rahul held a se­ries of meet­ing with lo­cal lead­ers, with his sec­re­tary tak­ing down notes. Gehlot says they “are leav­ing no stone un­turned. The peo­ple are yearn­ing for a change in Gu­jarat”. The Congress has said all this be­fore ev­ery elec­tion in the past 15 years, and then lost it at the hus­tings. This time, too, it looks an up­hill bat­tle for the party.

“By ques­tion­ing our per­for­mance, Rahul shifted the poll fo­cus to PM’s de­vel­op­ment agenda. It will cost him.” VI­JAY RU­PANI Chief min­is­ter




Rahul Gandhi with sup­port­ers dur­ing his visit to Jam­na­gar on Oct. 3

ROLLING ON Amit Shah flags off the ‘Gu­jarat Gaurav Ya­tra’ on Oct. 1

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